With distant sounds of artillery lingering in the air, a young Virginian girl gathering mushrooms, Amy (Oona Laurence), chances upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John Patrick McBurney (Colin Farrell) as the Civil War rages on. Unable to walk without assistance, he accepts the girl’s offer of medical assistance at the nearby girls Seminary. Though headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is willing to tend to the barely conscious enemy soldier, the other females, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning), are concerned about being discovered harbouring an enemy soldier, regardless of the seriousness of his infirmities. McBurney’s appearance will soon set the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak. The presence of a man is not something these women are accustomed to contemplating, especially in the intimate, strangely sensuous way as the tending of his wounds and ensuing recovery will inevitably require. Each of them, in turn, will fall under John’s spell as he regains consciousness and begins his recuperation, attempting to win favours and win a place in their lives, camouflaged from battle and returning to his duties.
The visual aloofness and emotional coldness that so often characterises Coppola’s films is kept to a minimum here and it’s a welcome evolvement in her stylistic approach after the overly self-conscious inertia of Somewhere (2010) and, later, the vacuous excess standing in for tired metaphors in the utterly redundant The Bling Ring (2013). The Beguiled (2017) conversely, is a masterfully weighted piece of storytelling and very different from Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel which featured Clint Eastwood in the role of McBurney. There is undoubted simplicity in this tale’s telling but rather than harming the overall effect, the strong foundation of engaging dialogue taken from the novel and flawless performances from this neatly assembled ensemble, have merged to produce what is an exquisite work of art.
Unlike Siegel’s version, the melodrama is admirably underplayed this time, for the most part, more in the way of Peter Weir’s Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) which Coppola seems to draw numerous inferences from in the way she informs her own film’s tone, pacing and visual conception. It’s not an insult to Weir’s film to draw comparisons either as The Beguiled equally stimulates the senses in a deliberate, slowly evolving way. No resonating intrigue sits at its heart, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock with its delicately suggested whiff of the supernatural, but the storytelling is just as exactingly realised. Coppola offers haunting images aplenty whilst skilfully appropriating the natural environment, casting occasional broader glances into the distance as the gunfire continues unabated, as well as cryptically setting her characters in the foreground against the mansion’s impressive gothic surrounds.
The performances all superbly reflect the characters’ increasingly pained constraint. Kidman and Dunst using silence and telling glances to convey the growing unease that McBurney’s mere presence provokes. Farrell is utterly unlike Eastwood but I don’t think he’s had many better roles than this, at least not in recent times. That effortless charisma and those classically sculpted Black Irish looks are exploited to full effect by Coppola. Without much of a challenge he’s able to project an aura of dangerously charged, corporeal possibilities that the more mature women are afraid to verbally contemplate and the younger girls can hardly comprehend in any rational way. This wilting influence of McBurney’s overt masculinity works as a compelling narrative device in its own right; it acts as an oppressive force that leads the women to confront pent-up emotional inhibitions and causes dangerous rifts in their cloistered, held-together version of a life constrained by the war lingering on the horizon each day. Though the ending carries with it an air of inevitability – even for those who’ve never seen Siegel’s film – there’s an impressive, haunting visual eloquence in the way Coppola draws the threads together, putting a final idiosyncratic stamp on proceedings and marking this as her finest film since Lost in Translation (2003).